NEW YORK – Lew Ford pointed to the top shelf of his locker in the visitors' clubhouse at Yankee Stadium. On it was a baseball, just a baseball, pulled from a carton, rubbed in mud, put in play and knocked for a double.
Beyond that, Ford couldn't speak to the path it took to his locker, to how it was taken out of play, to its journey from the field and then the third-base dugout to this corner of this clubhouse in this summer of the Baltimore Orioles.
"Somebody," he said appreciatively. "I don't know."
That baseball represented his 413th major-league hit, that Ford knew, and he could only assume it was the ball Ivan Nova threw and the one he hit deep into center field the night before. He grinned, somewhere between proud and bewildered, because maybe that ball never should have happened, but it did.
"I'm just a very realistic person," he said.
Ford had gone 11 big-league at-bats between his 412th and 413th hits. Those at-bats were stretched over nearly five years, from the Metrodome in Minneapolis on Sept. 21, 2007, to Yankee Stadium on Tuesday night. They'd waited out stops in Japan and Louisville and Mexico and Norfolk and parts of three summers on Long Island. They'd persevered across bad hamstrings and hard decisions, through breathless goodbyes to his three children and past so many faces and ballparks he could hardly remember them all.
He kept thinking, One more season. Once, he'd batted .299 over a full major-league season, hadn't he? Driven in 72 runs? Couldn't he still hit? Didn't he hit everywhere? Hadn't he always?
"I thought I was still a good player," Ford said. "I can't explain it."
All those years ago, he'd walked on to the baseball team at Texas A&M as a freshman, been cut, and spent the year playing intramural softball instead. He'd played at a couple junior colleges, one in Oklahoma, another in Texas, then walked on at Dallas Baptist University. He just kept showing up, trying out, fitting in, hitting. The Boston Red Sox drafted him 379th overall in 1999, and a year-and-a-half later traded him to the Twins for a relief pitcher.
But, he'd always believed. Through the Twins' system, into the major leagues, and even when he washed out at 31 and had to go searching for a new way. Maybe it was injuries, maybe it was something else that put him there, but the next job would come, the next town, the next at-bat, and Lew Ford wouldn't quit. He had to play. He had to know.
"This journey," Lew's father, Buck, said, "it could have ended when he was 18 or 19."
Coming up on 36, balding, his body stronger again, Ford had committed to one final season, this one. He'd return to the Long Island Ducks of the Independent Atlantic League for another summer of buses and ferries, but not for the long shot that one big-league scout might see him and remember him and think, you know, maybe. He'd gotten to know those guys, the Ducks, and liked them. He'd loved the community, the ballpark, the life. Together, they'd lost in the playoffs the season before. So Ford was going back all right, to win a championship for the franchise, for manager Kevin Baez, and for teammates who'd endured like him. And, of course, for himself.
"Then," he said, "just move on after that."
It was the first exit plan of his life, at least as far as baseball went.
"You know, you're out of the majors for one year, it's hard," he said. "Five years out? I realized how difficult it was going to be. So I just enjoyed what I was doing."
Nineteen games in, wouldn't you know, the Orioles called. Their general manager, Dan Duquette, had drafted Ford for the Red Sox 13 years before. The Orioles' manager in Triple-A Norfolk, Ron Johnson, coached in the Red Sox's low minors when Ford was there. In 62 games at Norfolk, Ford batted .331. Late last Saturday afternoon Ford was preparing for a game when Johnson leaned into the weight room at Harbor Park.
"Hey," Johnson shouted, "you want to fly or drive to Baltimore?"
"What?" Ford said.
"They need to know right now."
"I guess I'll drive."
Over those 4½ hours on the road, he called his oldest son, Jake. He called his mom and dad. He called the guys back on the Ducks and the friends at the gym on Long Island who helped put his body back together.
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On Sunday, Ford was batting fifth and playing left field at Camden Yards. The next night, he was at Yankee Stadium, batting sixth. And Tuesday night, with a few of those old Ducks teammates in the stands and a division race still alive and the place alive with baseball, Lew Ford got his 413th big-league hit, the one that was never supposed to come.
"I must say," said Buck Ford, who watched the hit fall from Texas, "and I've told him this, it's inspiring. Even if he wasn't my son I'd say so."
Buck said he'd never tried to talk Lew out of it. He'd never put his hand on Lew's shoulder, summoned a fatherly tone and said, Son, I think it's time to come home. Never even thought it.
"They have that thing called denial," Buck said with a small laugh. "I probably had been in denial. I've just seen him as a baseball player for so long, I guess I've been in denial about not envisioning him as a baseball player."
And then there Lew was, dressed as a big leaguer, in that cathedral in the Bronx, throwin' the bat head like always.
"There's a universal truth in all of this that people can identify with," Buck said. "You read in literature or see in the movies, the theme is somebody having a dream and into that they channel everything they have. So many times, they just can't reach it. But, the journey and the reward from it, that's from the passion. And Lew, he did it. That is what's so inspiring. Lew has done it."
For the moment, that might be a little big for Lew to consider. On a getaway day at Yankee Stadium that orange-and-black duffel was getting pretty full as it was. He's really got to go, to catch that bus, to see where it takes him. Maybe there's more baseball out there, and maybe not. Maybe ol' Lew Ford was done a long time ago and he and Buck were just the last to know, and maybe not.
"I don't want to think like that," Lew said. "I can reflect on that when I'm done playing."
He clarified, "In the offseason."
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He grinned. Yeah, maybe he's got one more one last season to go.
"I've just loved this series so much," he said. "I feel comfortable in there. It's fun to complete against the best at this level again."
Maybe he can again. And maybe he's got the baseball to prove it, however it got there.
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